Answered by Shaykh Amjad Rasheed
Translated by Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, SunniPath Academy Teacher
According to verses 44-48 of Surat al-Ma’idah, is it correct to say that if a ruler, whether the ruler of the country or the head of the household, does not rule by shari`ah, then he is outside of Islam? What are the rules by which we determine someone to be an apostate?
In the name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful,
The verses in question are from the words of the Exalted, “If any do fail to judge by what Allah hath revealed, they are Unbelievers,” and in another verse, “They are wrong-doers,” and in a third verse, “They are those who rebel.”
The jurisprudents and exegetes of Ahl al-Sunna have explained that these verses, especially the first one, apply to Muslims and are not to be taken at face value. Rather, they are interpreted [beyond the apparent meaning]. To sum up [the interpretation]: If someone abandons ruling by what Allah has revealed because he believes that these verses are not valid and legitimate enough to be applied, then he is, by consensus, an unbeliever and an apostate, and these verses were meant for him. However, if he believes in the legitimacy and validity of these verses but does not apply them out of negligence, then he is still a Muslim, but he is corrupt and has wronged his soul by leaving Allah’s command.
This position sets Ahl al-Sunna apart from the Kharijites and the Mu’tazilites on the issue of someone who commits enormities. The Kharijites declare such a person to be an unbeliever. The Mu’tazilites say that someone who commits enormities departs from his faith, and is somewhere in between belief and unbelief. He is neither called a believer nor an unbeliever, but is eternally condemned to Hell.
Ahl al-Sunna has taken a middle path by maintaining that there is a difference between the person who commits something unlawful, knowing full well that it is unanimously unlawful, but nevertheless regards it as permissible, and someone who believes that it is unlawful but does it anyway because he was negligent and overcome by his Shaytan and his lusts. The former is an unbeliever and apostate; the latter is a sinful Muslim who has been corrupted by committing an enormity. This is what the legal texts from the Quran and the Hadith say on the matter for anyone who cares to look with balance. This is a moderate, balanced standard.
It is obligatory to implement the religion of Allah. His law is above all other laws. And if someone abandons it, he will only lose out and be frustrated in both worlds. No one agrees that [this law] may be contradicted, except in the case of someone who has a sound legal excuse [not to follow some aspect of the Shariah], such as someone who is under duress, or in error, or has been afflicted with forgetfulness. Such a person has to be viewed in the proper context. Not everyone should be labeled an unbeliever. This highlights the strange behavior of certain groups that extend the label of unbelief to anyone who commits an enormity, and by extension, to political rulers and many other people, without distinguishing between someone who tries to make permissible something that is explicitly unlawful, and the person who commits the unlawful but acknowledges that he is negligent and sinful. This is a dangerous path to tread, it being nothing short of the revivification of the false madhhab of the Kharijites. This is in contradistinction of the way of the Prophet, the Rightly Guided Caliphs, and the pious Imams of the Muslims who did not label someone who had committed an enormity an unbeliever, and did not treat him as such. Instead, they considered him to be a Muslim, albeit sinful, negligent, and deserving of punishment. There is a difference between this position and the goals of this particular group whose thought is outside of the consensus of Muslims.
Going back to the issue of the interpretation of these verses, according to what we know from the madhhab of Ahl al-Sunna, the top exegetes from the Sahaba and those who came after them were explicit that the rulings in these verses were not to be taken at face value, as some people do who miss the mark. Instead, these verses are interpreted soundly in concordance with other legal texts. This is the correct juristic method that was established by the earliest scholars and followed by recent experts. What I mean by this is that they when they issue expert legal opinions, (conduct ijtihad), they look at all of the texts that are relevant to the question and they consider all of the established legal proofs, such as consensus (ijma’) and analogy (qiyas), then they extract rulings by which they act.
Fiqh is not what some ignorant show-offs do when they are only concerned with the outward meaning of a text and totally overlook other legal texts and evidences. This is either out of ignorance of the ways of extracting proofs, or out of a desire to spread controversy and innovation among the Muslims.
The reason I am pointing this out is because of the controversy that has been caused today [by some groups who have] declared many different people and various rulers to be unbelievers and have then imposed on them the rulings pertaining to unbelief. There are individuals with this strange mentality who have actually tried to kill anyone they deem to be unbelievers, falsely and unjustly considering the blood of many Muslims to be permissible. By saying this, I am not taking sides with anyone. Instead, I turn to Allah and absolve myself of anyone who goes against Allah’s law because of lust and personal interest while having the ability to adhere to Allah’s law and implement it. I also absolve myself of those aberrant people who have summarily declared many rulers and ordinary people to be unbelievers without having any proof from Allah.
The deen of Allah is precious and when learning its rules it is absolutely imperative to sit with trusted scholars and take from them according to what the Imams of Ahl al-Sunna have recorded for us in the books of jurisprudence and belief. Allah is the Master of success and the Supreme Guide to it.
The Hafiz Imam Muhyi al-Sunna al-Baghawi said in his exegesis, Features of the Revelation, interpreting these verses, “Qatadah and Dahhak have said: These three verses were revealed about the Jews, excluding anyone who has done wrong [in this matter] from this Ummah. It has been narrated from al-Bara’ bin Azib, may Allah be pleased with him, that the verses “If any do fail to judge by what Allah hath revealed, they are Unbelievers,” and “They are wrong-doers,” and “They are those who rebel,” all pertain to unbelievers.
It is also said that these verses refer to people in general.
Ibn Abbas and Tawoos have said that this is not the type of unbelief which takes someone out of the nation (Islam), but if someone does this [what is mentioned in the verses] they are unbelievers by their actions but are not like those who disbelieve in Allah and the Last Day.
Ata’ said that it is just short of unbelief and just short of wrong-doing and just short of rebellion.
‘Ikrimah interpreted it to mean that if someone deliberately chooses not to rule by what Allah has revealed, then he is an unbeliever. But if someone acknowledges it but does not rule by it, then he is a corrupt wrongdoer.
Abd al-`Aziz ibn Yahya al-Kanani was asked about these verses. He said these verses pertain to all of what Allah has revealed, not just some of it. So whoever does not rule by all of what Allah has revealed is an unbeliever and is also wrongdoing and corrupt. However, if someone rules by what Allah has revealed of monotheism and abstains from associating partners with Allah, but does not rule by whatever else Allah has revealed, does not receive the ruling of these verses [i.e., is not an unbeliever].
The scholars have said that [such a person is an unbeliever] only if he has openly and deliberately rejected the text of Allah’s ruling. But if someone misunderstands these verses or makes a mistake in interpreting them, he is not an unbeliever.”
As to your question about the issues that bring about a ruling of apostasy, this is a long and risky discussion. Our jurisprudents have devoted entire sections of fiqh books to this subject and have outlined the various issues surrounding it. Some of them have even written entire books devoted to this topic, the most important of these being al-‘Ilm bi Qawati’ al-Islam (A Notice of the Revilers of Islam) by Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad ibn Hajar al-Haytami, the Imam of the Shafi’i School and mufti of Mecca.
Let me share a few principles of what the scholars have said [on this issue]:
Apostasy is to revile Islam by word, deed, or intention. Whoever reviles Allah Ta’ala, His religion, or any of His prophets has committed unbelief. And whoever explicitly speaks a word of unbelief and believes what he has uttered has also committed unbelief, such as a person who says, “Allah is the third of three,” or, “The Messiah is the son of God.” Whoever commits an act of unbelief and believes in what he is doing becomes an unbeliever, such as someone who prostrates to an idol or throws the Quran in the trash. And if someone intends in his heart to revile Islam, he is an apostate, even if he does not say or do anything.
[Translated by Umm Salah]